Navigating Social Issues as a Brand

By: Victoria Price

Every PR+Ad professional knows that understanding your target market is one of the first steps to creating a successful strategic communication campaign. In today’s climate, the views and ideas of a target audience are constantly changing and evolving. The job of those in the public and media relations industry is to create an effective strategy to respond to these changes. In 2020 alone, brands and PR professionals have had to respond to a multitude of issues like COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and police brutality to name a few. We are now in an era of consumer activism and wokeness, “a state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality,”(“WOKENESS: Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary,” n.d.). Consumers want to see their favorite, trusted brands bring awareness to social problems and become more woke as well.

Since social issues are becoming more important to consumers, it is also becoming more important for brands to speak out and take a stance on these issues. Using their power and ability to influence society by taking a stance on issues that matter to consumers builds trust between the brand and its consumers. According to a 2019 survey by Social Sprout, 60% of consumers said they want brands to take a stand on social media because they believe that brands have the ability and power to make a real change (Social Sprout, 2020). 

While many brands have already tried their turn at campaigning and marketing around social issues, some brands may tend to stay quiet as to not risk causing controversy or being “canceled”, a term used frequently on social media to dismiss a brand, celebrity, or public figure after they share an opinion that may be controversial. The same Social Sprout survey shows that over half of consumers say they would boycott a brand whose stance they disagreed with, but when they agree with their stance, 37% say they would recommend the brand to friends and family, 36% say they would purchase more from the brand, and 29% say they would publicly promote the brand (Social Sprout, 2020).

The Brand Risk Relevance Curve is a diagram that suggests five different ways that a brand may incorporate social issues into their campaigns and PR strategies. The five approaches include: head in sand, values, purpose, issues, and position. It was created by Fortune 500 chief marketing officer, Peter Horst in his book “Marketing in the #FakeNews Era: New Rules for a New Reality of Tribalism, Activism, and Loss of Trust.” The “head in sand” approach is when a brand completely steers clear of social issues and politics. This approach is positioned off the chart because it is not the ideal scenario in regard to a brand gaining trust and credibility from consumers. If a brand, for example, tries to ignore the issue and pretend that it doesn’t exist or affect their target audience, consumers are going to notice and lose trust in the brand. The values and purpose of a brand are usually not controversial, but issues and positions are where things get tricky. The issues approach is when a brand chooses to speak out, but doesn’t take a side. This can either be beneficial or harmful to a brand, based on how consumers perceive the message. The highest-risk approach is position, in which a brand speaks out and shares its stance and opinion on the issue (Horst, 2019). 

Here are a couple of recent, well-known social issue campaigns that exemplify the different risks and effects associated with a brand (Nike) taking a position:

Nike’s 2018 Dream Crazy campaign featured football player Colin Kaepernick, who is known for displaying his activism against police brutality on black people by taking a knee during the National Anthem at NFL games. Nike received severe backlash from this campaign, with many people boycotting Nike for their support of Kaepernick and his actions. Despite all of the negative sentiment around Nike and millions of people seen tweeting videos of them burning their Nike products, Nike stock hit an all-time high and sales went up by 31% just days after the campaign launched (“Nike Online Sales Grew 31% Over Labor Day Weekend & Kaepernick Ad Campaign,” 2018). 

A couple of years later, Nike released their “For Once, Don’t Do It” campaign in May 2020 in response to the tragic death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Nike was among the first of the brands to address this issue and make a statement about the fight for racial equality and social justice. This time around, however, Nike received mostly positive sentiment. According to a study by Ace Metrix, the ad scored positively for purchase intention and 60% of respondents found the message to be very empowering for such a large and influential corporation to start a conversation about social issues like racism and police brutality (Ace Metrix Inc, 2020).

So, what’s the right thing to do in these situations? From a PR standpoint, I think it looks great when large, powerful brands and companies address important issues that affect our society. Even if it’s not something that everyone agrees with, they are still using their power and influence to start a conversation about the issue, which will then hopefully lead to change. I would much rather see a brand use their platform to address these issues, rather than shy away from fear of backlash or losing money. All of this just goes to show the importance of understanding your target audience and what your consumers expect from you in a time where social issues are rising all around us. 


Ace Metrix Inc. (2020, June 02). Nike’s “For Once, Don’t Do It” Rallies Strong Support, But Not Without Controversy. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

Horst, P. (2019, January 20). Gillette’s Controversial “Toxic Masculinity” Ad And The Opportunity It Missed. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

Nike Online Sales Grew 31% Over Labor Day Weekend & Kaepernick Ad Campaign. (2018, September 7). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

Social Sprout. (2020, July 02). #BrandsGetReal: Brands Creating Change in the Conscious Consumer Era. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

WOKENESS: Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

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